Finding common ground in the Qur’an
Carla Power, a former Newsweek journalist, spent a year studying the Qur’an with Sheik Mohammad Akram Nadwi, a renowned Islamic scholar. They struck up a friendship in the 1990s while working at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, a think-tank in England, as they mapped the spread of Islam in Asia. After Sept. 11, their friendship deepened as the chasm between East and West grew. The result is a book — If Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran — that challenged Power’s assumptions about Western culture and the Muslim world.
For most kids growing up in the United States or Canada their first memories are amusement parks or visiting Santa at the mall. Yours are pretty unusual.
My parents were professors and my father, a law professor in Missouri, in particular loved living in the Islamic world. He found it the most potent antidepressant that he knew. We would pack up and move for a year, sometimes two. I was 5 when we went to Iran. This was the early 1970s. I was there when the shah threw his 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy party at Persepolis, which was seen by many of the Iranian people as the height of bad taste. It was extraordinarily expensive, florists from Versailles had come in and made the desert bloom with roses and foreign dignitaries coming in and completely ignoring what was roiling under the surface: the Islamic Revolution. The Qur’an is considered confusing and difficult unless you understand classical Arabic and seventhcentury Arabian society. That pretty much excludes the vast majority of people on the planet. So why did you want to study the Qur’an?
Throughout my 17 years as a journalist writing about Islamic societies, no editor ever asked me, ‘What does it say in the Qur’an about this?’ Instead, I was writing about what Muslims did, Muslims as an identity issue, Muslims as a geopolitical concept. I had seen the tremendous power of the text in action, but I hadn’t read the text. It seemed a basic thing to do, akin to reading Homer and Hamlet if you were reading literature. You chose to study with a madrassa-educated, traditional scholar from a village in Uttar Pradesh, India. It’s not an obvious choice for a secular American
woman of mixed Jewish-Quaker descent, as you describe yourself.
I wanted the book to be a listening exercise, an attempt to see how much common ground one could find with someone whose world views are fundamentally different than my own in many ways. Despite what people say about a world with technology bringing us together, we live in a polarized world where it is easy to go online and hang out with people who think exactly like you. You describe movingly your father’s terrible and untimely death. How did that change your views on faith?
My father was murdered in Mexico in 1993. His death was the first time I saw the glimmering of the friendship that was going to happen with Sheik Akram Nadwi. I ran into him in the office at Oxford and told him what had happened. He stood up and started reciting a poem from the Pakistani philosopher poet Muhammad Iqbal, an elegy to his mother. ‘Who will wait for my letters now? Who will wait for me in the night to return now?’ It was the most comforting thing I heard in the months of mourning. The notion that grief and death are universal and part of life was
tremendously comforting. Later, I realized what was holy to me as a secular humanist: connecting to other people who are different from you. If I do believe in something that is holy, it is that. The idea of recognizing and accepting differences is also a Qur’anic value. Sheik Akram wrote a biographical dictionary of 9,000 female scholars in Islamic history. It seems extraordinary because I doubt most people can name even one.
The stereotype is a grey-bearded man in a mosque. But he found women who were riding across Arabia on camelback and horseback to do lecture tours. He found a woman in Samarkand who was issuing not only her own fatwas, but writing fatwas of her less-talented husband. These are unthinkable freedoms for many women in this day and age. I thought that these women were forgotten for the same reason western women had been until recently, that women’s history had been buried because it was mostly males writing about the corridors of power. But in the Muslim context, there was another reason: Muslim notions of modesty and not putting women’s names in the public space.
What did the Qur’an reveal to you?
When I sat down for my first lesson with the sheik, I thought I would read the book and understand it like a good schoolgirl. But through the course of our lessons I realized it was so much bigger. We would discuss and debate the Qur’an and the
hadith, the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad.
To call the Qur’an a book would limit it to a human-made notion of what learning is. The only way I could see it in the end was a return, again and again, the 35-times-aweek prayers that many Muslims do. The Qur’an is a place you return to and learn of your God. Here are questions people have about the Qur’an. Does it promise 72 virgins in paradise for suicide bombers?
No. Does the Qur’an say women are inferior to men?
No. Although there have been some very conservative, and I would say misogynistic, translations that have implied that. But certainly Sheik Akram Nadwi and many other mainstream scholars do not see women at all as inferior to men. Does the Qur’an say that Jews and Christians are infidels?
Absolutely not. There are problematic verses but they came down at particular points in Islamic history and this whole idea that jihadists are propagating is opportunistic, doing violence to the text and the overarching message of the Qur’an. You considered converting to Islam but didn’t. Can you talk about that?
A lot of my Muslim friends said, ‘Ah it starts by reading. You are going to convert, we know it.’
But I couldn’t make that leap. I found bits of the Qur’an were absolutely beautiful, but I couldn’t make the interpretive leap that one has to. I admire it, I admire Islam, but it’s not a bridge I can cross.
“Throughout my 17 years as a journalist writing about Islamic societies, no editor ever asked me ‘What does it say in the Qur’an about this?’ ” AUTHOR CARLA POWER (LEFT, WITH SHEIK MOHAMMAD AKRAM NADWI)